Of all the things I do, the one that intrigues non participants the most seems to be CrossFit. I get asked often about what it’s like and I find people have a lot of misconceptions.
As we approach the new year, I know lots of people are starting to think about beginning new programs of exercise, including CrossFit. Here’s my two cents.
First, what’s CrossFit all about anyway? Here’s the official line:
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit involves a series of short-interval exercises that, done day after day, will result in an overall stronger, fitter you. It is designed to improve 10 physical attributes: cardiovascular/respiratory resistance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.
Workouts of the Day or WODs are constantly varied and are typically short (20 minutes or less) and intense, demanding all-out physical exertion. Classes consist of a warm-up, strength training, WOD and cool down with mobility. They typically last around 45 – 60 minutes and can be scaled for all fitness levels.
If you’re thinking about starting CrossFit, here’s my advice. Keep in mind that I’m me. YMMV, as they say. I’m a 50 year old reasonably physically fit woman. I’m not easily intimated. I’m a pretty large woman. And I like high intensity physical activity and thrive when presented with challenges. I’ve been doing CrossFit for a couple of years, here in London, Ontario and also in Dunedin, New Zealand, where I first started.
First, it’s not just for already fit athletes. I hear a lot of people talk about getting in shape to join CrossFit but that’s just silly. I can see how you might think that if your main exposure to CrossFit is through the CrossFit games on television but in the real world, there’s a wide range of people doing CrossFit. The slogan at the London CrossFit box might be “forging elite fitness” but there a lot of regular people there just having fun and doing their best.
In fact, the CrossFit workouts are incredibly scalable to different levels. See my post Leveling up at CrossFit: Rx versus modified workouts
And if you don’t believe me here’s someone talking about the message they heard at their level 1 CrossFit certification:
“If you think we are programming for (elite) athletes, you are dead wrong; they are but a fraction of the people working out in our gyms. What we do scales for the 70 year old grandmother as well as elite athletes.”
Second, it’s not just for twenty somethings. Yes, there are a lot of twenty somethings there but there are also a lot of people in their forties, fifties, and beyond. Here is my favorite CrossFit image, of a deadlifting grandma.
Third, it won’t necessarily transform the way your body looks. It will change the way your body works. You’ll get stronger, fitter, faster, and generally more powerful but not everybody ends up looking like the images you find if you Google “women and CrossFit.” See CrossFit and women’s bodies. My only positive thought is that all the beautiful strong body images help counteract the idea that lifting makes women big and bulky. Personally, I’m not afraid of big and bulky. Come visit. In the real world of CrossFit you see women of all shapes and sizes. The cool thing isn’t how they look. It’s how much they lift.
I like thinking of the slogan “strong is the new skinny” as a shift to performance from aesthetics but I know I’m in the minority. Still, CrossFit is the environment where I hear very little from other women about weight, about diets, and about percent body fat. Mostly, the women talk about their goals in terms of strength.
Fourth, there’s a lot of coaching and instruction. I hear a lot of complaints from people who do other kinds of lifting about CrossFit coaching but in my experience those worries are way off the mark. Typically people complain about the number of participants to coaches and they worry about new people trying difficult lifts without supervision. In the places I’ve attended there’s nothing further from the truth. First, there’s a structured entry program where you learn the basics. Second, there’s a lot of attention from coaches while you lift.
Usually we have about a dozen athletes and one coach. That seems just right to me.
I can’t imagine learning to deadlift by myself in the gym. CrossFit is a terrific alternative.
I think maybe these complaints come from places where CrossFit is wildly popular and there are crowded understaffed classes. But that’s never been my experience.
Okay, what’s a typical class like?
It starts with a 10 min warm up, on your own. I used to hate the “on your own” bit and wanted someone to tell me what to do but I’ve come to see its virtues. People come to CrossFit with different strengths and weaknesses and while we all need to do a bit of cardio warm up (there’s skipping ropes, rowing machines, and a bike) and some mobility work to warm up joints before lifting often we also have our own body parts that require special attention.
Next there’s the bit that I think of as skill work. It’s not timed. There’s no race. The emphasis is on getting a particular lift right. Sometimes our focus is a certain part of the lift. Other times it’s strength and going for new personal bests. But it’s focused and careful. We usually work in small groups.
Today we worked on back squats, working up to 8 sets of 2 at 70% of your one rep max. I like that the groups are broken down by strength not gender and while it’s mostly women at the lighter end of the room, and mostly men at the heavier end, in the middle, where I’m often found there’s a good mix of men and women.
Then we put weights away and look at the Work Out of the Day (WOD) on the white board.
Today’s was 3 rounds of the following:
7 Push Press (Rx, or recommended, weight for women 30 kg)
30 push ups
30 air squats.
When you’re done you yell “time” and your time gets written on the board. I did it in 8:11.
I used the RX weight for the push press but I can only get out 10 push ups if I do them from the toes. So I scaled the workout and that’s okay. Possible scaling is discussed in advance. Some people lowered the weight and a woman with knee injuries substituted sit ups for the air squats.
At the end, you put away gear and stretch. I usually leave sweaty and smiling.
Come play sometime!
See also Can Feminists Find a Home in Crossfit? and Six Things I Love about CrossFit